Shardul Thakur can be quite extreme. He keeps oscillating between sublime and mediocre: like striking twice in two balls and giving up two leg-side fours in the same over. His back-to-back wickets of Daryl Mitchell and Tom Latham in the third ODI in Indore put a smile on Rohit Sharma's face, but that was quickly replaced by frowns and a venting of frustration.
Then, in his next over, Thakur changed the mood of his captain, and the course of the game, for good with another wicket. Rohit, Hardik Pandya, the Indore crowd - everyone wanted a slice of Thakur now.
But India hadn't wanted Thakur for their previous ODI series against Sri Lanka earlier this month, despite Deepak Chahar being unfit and Bhuvneshwar Kumar being dropped from the squad. They had Mohammed Shami batting at No.8 in the first ODI in Guwahati. In that game, Sri Lanka, for example, had allrounders Dunith Wellalage and Chamika Karunaratne batting at No.8 and 9. More recently, New Zealand had Mitchell Santner batting at No.8 and Henry Shipley at No.9.
England, the gold standard of white-ball cricket at present, have batting depth all the way up to No.10 in ODIs. David Willey, who has opened for Perth Scorchers in the Big Bash League, slotted in at No.10 in England's most recent ODI in November last year. You need such depth to win world tournaments, which is perhaps why India recalled Thakur for the ODIs against New Zealand.
Thakur is no Willey or even Chahar, who was earmarked as a batting allrounder long ago by Stephen Fleming and MS Dhoni at Rising Pune Supergiant in the IPL. But Thakur is perhaps the best option that India have for No.8 right now. Rohit had said as much on the eve of the ODI series against New Zealand in Hyderabad.
"It is going to be challenging for us.. to get a No 8, No 9 who can bat," Rohit said. "His [Thakur's] ability with the bat can give us the edge at No 8. But if you have seven good batters who can do the job for us - no matter what the situation is, then you can look at your playing combination as well. In India [at the World Cup], you are going to play all over the country - different pitches, different challenges."
On Tuesday in Indore, Thakur gave India the edge, both with bat and ball. After Rohit and Shubman Gill made centuries to give India a shot at a 400-plus total, New Zealand dragged them so far back that they were in danger of not scoring 375 at one point. However, some late hitting from Thakur pushed India up to 385.
Even that target didn't seem safe when Devon Conway and Henry Nicholls laid into Thakur in the powerplay. He kept missing his lengths and kept disappearing - in front of the wicket and behind it - on a ground where the boundaries were only around 60 metres on average. The dew then set in, making it more difficult for India's bowlers. The ball slid onto the bat nicely in the evening and when New Zealand were 184 for 2 in 25 overs, the chase was on.
Thakur then returned and dismissed Mitchell with a head-high bouncer. Next ball, he had Tom Latham spooning a knuckle-ball full-toss to mid-off. Thakur ended the over with two loose balls that travelled for fours. In his next over, he found more bounce with a cross-seam delivery and had Glenn Phillips weakly flapping to Virat Kohli. Thakur's variety was as delightful - and unpredictable - as the lip-smacking street-food at Indore's Sarafa Bazar night market. He helped shut out New Zealand as India took the series 3-0.
Rohit, who has seen Thakur's evolution from a red-ball cricketer in Mumbai's maidans to a utility white-ball player, spoke glowingly of his skills.
"He has got the knack of taking wickets at crucial times for us," Rohit said. "We have seen it, not just in ODI cricket but also in Test cricket. There are so many instances that I remember [when] there is a partnership building from the opposition and he came in and got us through. He is very critical to us, we know where we stand as a team, what he brings to us is very critical. I just hope that he keeps putting up performances like this and it will only do good for the team.
"He is very smart, he has played lot of domestic cricket, he has come up through the ranks, and he understands what needs to be done. In this format you need to use your skill and Shardul definitely has some skills. He has a good knuckle ball; he bowled it to Tom Latham today, that was nicely planned in the middle by few players and I was not included in that (laughs). It was Virat, Hadik and Shardul; so it was a good plan. At the end of the day, if a plan works for the team, we all are happy."
It takes immense self-belief and courage to execute such variations on a flat, bash-through-the-line Indore pitch.
"[At] some point, they're going to come after you," Thakur told Star Sports after winning the Player-of-the-Match award for his spell of 3 for 45 and innings of 25 off 17. "But when they come after you, it's important to stay in the moment and not get too ahead of yourself. At that point of time, I was just trying to tell myself that: 'okay what needs to be done, I will go and execute the same ball."
Thakur has always been open to exploring different lengths and deliveries across all formats. When they come off, like they did in Indore, he becomes #LordThakur. When they don't come off, he becomes a meme material. Since the end of the 2019 World Cup, Thakur has a strike rate of 29.8, one of the best among seamers from Full-Member nations with at least 20 wickets. During this same period, his economy rate of 6.25 is the worst among seamers. Thakur is ready to embrace both the highs and lows.
"I don't think too much because as a cricketer you need to be ready for all situations," Thakur said. "You can be asked to bowl or bat at any point of time. And I think to be ready [for the challenge] is the key."
Shami had bowled a terrific spell in the second ODI against New Zealand in Raipur, but he might have to sit out once Jasprit Bumrah regains fitness. Playing Mohammed Siraj, Bumrah and Shami, along with a wristspinner, lengthens India's tail. Thakur's all-round success against New Zealand could potentially see him fit into India's ODI World Cup plans as their No.8 batter and third seamer.